Nearly five years ago, Seahawks running back Chris Carson's family lost their home in a fire. Now Carson is joining the fight against the homeless crisis in Seattle.
Chris Carson made his mother a promise while their past went up in smoke.
That’s why the second-year Seahawk arrived at an event space at Magnuson Park, on the lip of Lake Washington, a few minutes shy of 6 p.m. last Friday night. Carson came to support ROOTS — “Rising Out of the Shadows” — an emergency shelter for homeless youth ages 18 to 25.
More to the point, he came to 1.) fight homelessness and 2.) fulfill his promise.
Because, not so long ago, he was homeless, too.
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It was sometime after 3 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2013, when a faulty circuit breaker box outside their two-story house in Lilburn, Ga., unexpectedly sparked. Chris — then a freshman at Butler (Kan.) Community College, now the starting running back for the Seattle Seahawks — was home on break and asleep on the couch.
Carson’s stepfather — Dorian Rowe — got out of bed when he heard glass breaking. He opened the door to his second-floor bedroom and found Chris standing there, waiting for him.
“Dad, there’s a fire downstairs,” Carson said.
Rowe told Carson to take his little brother and mother outside, while he ran downstairs to wake his brother-in-law (who also lived with the family). When they were all safe on the porch of a vacant house across the street, Carson and Rowe grabbed two gardening hoses and attempted to fight the fire themselves.
Carson sprayed a steady stream of water across the kitchen, while Rowe doused the cedar deck he had built in the backyard. But the family’s fire alarms kept screaming, the smoke kept rising and the flames kept spreading.
“Out of my peripheral I saw a glow, and I looked up and the fire had went up the side of the house and into our attic,” Rowe said. “The whole attic was glowing.”
Eventually, Rowe and Carson conceded defeat and joined their family across the street. They stood there, wrapped in blankets, puffing the icy air on an unusually frigid night outside Atlanta. They watched as fire trucks arrived, as part of the roof caved in, as 20-foot flames climbed out of the hole in their home, lit up the night and pierced the sky.
They watched, devastated, as the first house Dorian and Dina Rowe ever bought gradually buckled under the blaze. They watched 14 years of family memories and mementos melt with it.
“I can remember the first night we stayed there,” Dorian Rowe said last week. “It was raining when we moved in, so we couldn’t get anything off the truck, it was storming so bad. All of us — (5-year-old) Chris and his mom and his sister and I — we slept in the living room on the floor and made it into a little indoor camping (site).
“They loved it. I even fired up the fireplace to make sure it was working OK.”
Fourteen years later, that house was burning down.
The family felt hopeless, helpless …
“We felt very blessed to be alive after that,” Rowe said. “Going through that, it was like nothing else could really bother you. Nothing else mattered. If we would have had to sleep in a tent, that would have been fine.”
A tent wouldn’t be necessary, but while Carson returned to school, his family — and their dogs, and their guinea pigs — stuffed themselves into three hotel suites for four and a half months, followed by a temporary apartment. Nearly five years later, they live in a house in Lilburn owned by a family friend.
Carson, meanwhile, lives and works in Seattle — where tents are pitched on street corners and beneath underpasses, constant evidence of a homeless crisis staining his second home. Every game, every practice, every rep, the 24-year-old is running so someday soon he can replace his parents’ house.
But that’s just the beginning.
“I just remember this moment where we were outside and my mom was on the curb and she was crying, and we just had to look at our house while it burned down,” Carson said last Friday night, sitting on a stage in front of a room full of strangers, dressed in black from head to toe. “So that’s something that’s always played over and over in my head.
“I told my mom, ‘If I can, I’m going to get you a new house. I’m going to try to make a better world for us.’ ”
Carson is trying to make a better world for Seattle’s homeless, too.
So, too, is ROOTS — the largest youth shelter in the state — a 19-year-old nonprofit housed out of the University Temple United Methodist Church on Northeast 43rd Street near the University of Washington in North Seattle. Every night from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., it offers 45 beds, hot meals and a brief respite from the ruthless cold and rain.
Less than 48 hours before the Seahawks hosted the Los Angeles Chargers at CenturyLink Field last Sunday, Carson circulated from one table to the next, shaking hands and taking photos at ROOTS’ sixth-annual supporters dinner.
And, a few minutes after 7:30 p.m., the shelter’s “athlete ambassador” was asked to join the event’s emcee on center stage.
Once homeless, Carson stood up, smiled and started the conversation.
“It’s super important,” ROOTS interim executive director Arthur Padilla said of Carson’s involvement in the event. “I think the best part of having someone like him is that people start talking about it. The minute he starts talking about it, everybody else starts talking about it.
“No one cares who I am. I do important work, but no one cares, right? It’s not the same value. So that’s really important. For me, it’s about the conversation. How do we get the conversation started?”
On Friday, at least, this is how: As Carson swiveled around tables and gradually approached the lighted stage, the crowd of 210 donors and volunteers broke into an impromptu “SEA-HAWKS” chant. One (likely) Brian Schottenheimer supporter gleefully shouted, “Establish the run!”
Even there, Carson’s identity was undeniably attached to his success as a Seattle Seahawk. In seven games this season, the former seventh-round pick has rushed for 497 yards, 4.5 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns, while churning out three 100-yard rushing games. The 5-foot-11, 222-pound battering ram sat out the second half of last weekend’s 25-17 loss to the Chargers with a hip injury, leaving his status for Sunday’s road game against the Rams a relative mystery.
Still, it’s his style — his fearless physicality, his penchant for falling forward — that has endeared him to the city of Seattle and its fans. A torn ACL suffered during his senior season of high school didn’t stop him. A hairline fracture in his forearm a few years earlier didn’t stop him. A torn ligament in his thumb during his senior season at Oklahoma State didn’t stop him. A broken leg during his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks didn’t stop him.
A house fire that swallowed up more than half his family’s possessions didn’t stop him, for gosh sakes.
Does anybody really think an arm tackle or two will bring him down?
“He’s so tough and physical and attacking. We love his play,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday. “That affects more than just the yardage that you make; his style of play is one that our guys are really fired up about. They love to see him make the play.
“Like the touchdown he scored in Detroit, the last touchdown we had, just the way he did it, the style of it, the aggressiveness — we love that.”
The donors inside Hangar 30 — with its bright bulbs dangling from the rafters, illuminating the room — certainly loved Carson last Friday night; they saluted him with a standing ovation as the resilient running back returned to his seat. They also cared about the cause enough to raise $53,100 to fight homelessness in Seattle (and, once it learned of Carson’s involvement, Safeway offered to match that figure).
As for Carson, his goal was to harness whatever name recognition he’s garnered and redirect it toward ROOTS.
It was to use his unique platform to fulfill a promise to his mother.
“I told her, ‘If I get this chance, I’m going to use this platform and try to help out as much as I can,’ ” Carson told the crowd. “My agent and my team got me in contact with ROOTS, and I saw what they were doing here. It was amazing. I knew I wanted to get involved with it. I wanted to be a supporter of it.
“I’m just blessed that I got to meet these people and help out as best I can.”